In an already busy school day, finding time for building character in schools and students can be a challenge. However, school is the first social structure the child encounters, and it provides an excellent opportunity for character-building.
School is not just about learning concepts; it is also a place where a foundation can be built for becoming upstanding adults. Every school should set a tone of respect, honesty and genuine kindness for all students. Whether they like it or not, teachers are role models for students and can provide examples of good character every day in the classroom. Students notice what teachers, do, say, tolerate, and how they handle challenges.
However, character building can also be done proactively through planned actions and activities within the classroom. These classroom activities will encourage students to develop and adopt quality ethical principles and behaviors that can last far beyond the classroom. Here are seven ways to help build character within the classroom:
Pillars of character
It has been said that character can be measured by what one would do if no one were looking. True character is instilled at a deep level so that positive behavior is automatic. The Josephson Institute of Ethics defines the main pillars of character to include: trustworthiness, responsibility, respect, caring, fairness and citizenship. Courage, diligence, and integrity are also sometimes included.
One way to address these pillars is to choose one per month and find ways to highlight it. Create an interactive collage on a bulletin board in the classroom. Assign creative writing projects on the topic, encouraging students to explore it. How would they define trustworthiness, respect, or integrity? Focusing on one pillar per month is a great way to raise awareness of the character traits they can strive to build in themselves. Students could also read a book that you feel embodies the trait, or come up with their own personal slogan about it.
Your rules set the tone
It is your responsibility as the teacher to set appropriate rules for classroom behavior. Be clear about the ground rules. Specify what you expect to see from your students, and what is unacceptable. Discuss the rules with the students, as well as the character traits that are embodied and built by each rule. Be sure to be a good example yourself as well. Complete your own work on time, be neat and punctual, and always show respect for others.
You can even allow students to suggest helpful rules that could benefit the class. Try and stay positive; praise students who exhibit good behavior and good character. Make them positive role models for the class. You can employ a reward system for good behavior such as points or gold stars. Credits earned could be exchanged for classroom privileges.
Encourage good role models
Students choose role models whether a teacher or adult helps or not. Make an effort to point out positive character role models in history, literature, science and the arts. Deliberately teach about people that your students can emulate. Ask students to describe, assess and match the traits and behaviors of these people or commendable characters within a fiction story. They could even dramatize some of the story elements or change them to allow a character to make better choices. Talk about the behavior of current world leaders, sports figures and celebrities as well. Ask students if a person’s words match their actions. Discuss how life is improved with good character traits.
Insist on respect
Your classroom should be firmly established on a foundation of respect. Self-respect and respect for others are the basis of all other positive character traits. Negativity and abuse of any kind should not be tolerated, and met with appropriate consequences. Create anti-bullying campaigns and extol the virtues of treating all classmates with respect and dignity.
Build a caring community
A caring attitude can be encouraged by having a zero-tolerance policy on name-calling and character assaults or bullying. Make sure that all students are included in activities. Describe the “random acts of kindness” concept and reward students when they demonstrate it.
Take some time in your classroom to highlight the virtues and importance of volunteerism. Start volunteer programs in your classroom and school. Allow students to read or tutor younger children, assist in the computer lab, help at a local food bank, assist with reading comprehension or provide support for students recovering from an illness or injury.
You can collect donations for a worthy cause, perhaps even one that serves children. An example would be The Smile Train, which offers free surgeries for poor children who have cleft lips. Students might arrange and conduct a recycling project, do work for donations, or take pledges for biking, walking, dancing, etc.
Character in action
Throughout the school year, challenge students to create class projects that can benefit the school or community. Brainstorm ideas that cultivate the Pillars of Character discussed in Tip No. 1 and strive for a strong community spirit. Have older students manage these projects. Work with students to plan the steps necessary. Enlist parental and community support; ask for sponsors or donations as needed.
These are just a few suggestions for building character in schools and students. However, there are actually endless opportunities to do so throughout the school day. Use your imagination — the sky is the limit.